John Lort Stokes.

Discoveries in Australia, Volume 2 Discoveries in Australia; with an Account of the Coasts and Rivers Explored and Surveyed During the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, in The Years 1837-38-39-40-41-42-43. By online

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Online LibraryJohn Lort StokesDiscoveries in Australia, Volume 2 Discoveries in Australia; with an Account of the Coasts and Rivers Explored and Surveyed During the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, in The Years 1837-38-39-40-41-42-43. By → online text (page 19 of 35)
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bright orb had sunk into the same vast dead level from which it rose, we
reached the entrance. Being anxious that the surgeon should see Mr.
Gore's hand, I sent the gig on with him to the ship; next morning, as we
crossed the bar, he rejoined us, and I was very happy to find the
ablution in brandy had been of great service to his wound.

After leaving Disaster Inlet, the coast was examined to the eastward, and
at the distance of fifteen miles, in an East 5 degrees South direction,
we came to a projection that we called Middle Point. The shore between
fell back, forming a bight three miles deep, in latitude 17 degrees 44
minutes South, the most southern shore of the Gulf. A growth of mangroves
prevented our landing at high-water, and at low, soft mud flat fronted
the shore for the distance of a mile and more. Five miles from Disaster
Inlet there was a small creek; with others, three, four, and six miles
westward of Middle Point.


Two miles south-east of it was another opening of more importance, almost
forming a channel quite through the flat at the entrance, which extended
three miles off the north-west side of Middle Point. I named this Morning
Inlet, from the time at which I entered it; and after proceeding a mile
in a southerly direction landed for observations, just within the
mangroves that fringe the entire coast. My view of the interior was very
limited: for some distance were patches of bare mud, whitened with a salt
incrustation, which appeared the character of the country immediately
behind the mangroves; afterwards it rose into plains, on which small
gum-trees were to be seen in the distance.

From Morning Inlet the coast was slightly waving and trended East 20
degrees North. At the end of twelve miles we found a little opening on
the south-east side of a small point which concealed the boats from two
natives, who were out on the mud flats, till we got close to them. They
gazed for a moment at the strange apparition, and then made off as fast
as the nature of the ground would admit; they were quite naked, and we
were not a little amused to see them floundering through the soft mud.
Close to the westward of this opening are two clumps of tall mangroves,
the only remarkable objects on the shore of the Gulf from Disaster Inlet.
There was another small inlet four miles further on; and what is
remarkable for this neighbourhood, a sandy beach midway between them.


On the evening of the 28th we entered a large and promising opening,*
distant twenty-one miles from Morning Inlet; its importance was made
manifest by its forming a channel of two feet at low-water through the
flat at the entrance, which it threw out considerably.

(*Footnote. The mouth is in latitude 17 degrees 36 minutes 40 seconds
South, and longitude 8 degrees 27 minutes 0 seconds East of Port

The boats proceeded up the opening at daylight on the 29th; our hopes
were considerably raised by finding a depth of three and, in some places,
five fathoms, and a width of about a hundred and twenty yards. The banks
were, as usual, lined with mangroves; behind which, on the eastern side,
retreated vast plains, with trees of some size scattered over them. They
extend to the coast eastward of the entrance, which is sandy for some
distance, with casuarinae, acacias, and small gums, which was not only a
pleasing change from the monotonous mangrove shore, but had also its
utility, serving to show the mouth of the opening from the offing.

We pursued a general South-South-East direction, though from the
windings, and the tide being against us, our progress was slow; and at
the end of eleven miles were obliged to wait its changing. Here we landed
in the mouth of a small creek at the end of a clear bank on the eastern
side; the opposite one also began to wear the same character, and our
eyes therefore were permitted to wander over an immense extent of very
level open grassy country, dotted with clumps of trees.

The tides changing only twice in twenty-four hours presented a great
impediment to our exploration, and it was evening before we could again
move onwards.


Whilst waiting the tide, the note of a bird resembling the cuckoo broke
the deep stillness that prevailed. It was evening; all around was calm:
the wide extended plain dimly stretching away on every side, the waters
as they imperceptibly swelled between the curving banks, the heavens in
which the last rays of the sun still lingered, gilding the few clouds
that hovered near the horizon. A pleasing sadness stole over the heart as
these familiar sounds - the note of this Australian cuckoo, if I may
venture to name a bird from its voice - floated through the tranquil air.
Recollections of the domestic hearth, and the latticed window shaded with
vines and honeysuckles, and the distant meadows, and glades, and
woodlands, covered with the bursting buds of spring; and - pervading all
and giving a charm to all - the monotonous but ever welcome and thrilling
note of the cuckoo sounding afar off: recollections of all these things,
I say, rushed o'er each fancy, and bore us for a moment back in
imagination to our island home.


The more rapid flow of the tide and the announcement that there was now
sufficient water for the boats to proceed, broke our reverie; and we were
soon once more cleaving the moonlit reach. I may here mention that this
bird, and another with a more mournful cry, the same before spoken of up
the Victoria River, were heard again at eventide.

Avoiding a large shoal, which threatened to arrest our further progress,
by a narrow channel close to the west bank, we continued to pursue the
upward course of this inlet or river - we were yet uncertain what to call
it - in a general southerly direction; though the reaches were singularly
tortuous, resembling the folds of a snake. The depth was now only about
one fathom, and our progress was much impeded by banks; but by the
friendly aid of the moon we were able to proceed, and many of the sudden
bends were revealed by the silvery stream of light it shed over the still
waters as they lay between banks now overhung by mangrove thickets, now
receding in plains dotted with gloomy clumps of gumtrees, as far as the
eye, from our low position and by the imperfect light afforded, could
reach. As we advanced, the measured plash of the oars frightened from
their roosting places in the trees, a huge flock of screeching vampires,
that disturbed for a time the serenity of the scene by their discordant
notes; and a few reaches further up, noisy flights of our old friends,
the whistling-ducks, greeted our ears. Their presence and cries were
hailed with delight, not exactly because they gave rise to any romantic
associations, but because they promised to recruit our victualling
department, which had not been supplied with such dainties since leaving
Disaster Inlet. Had our taste resembled that of some of the natives of
the western coast of Africa, the vampires would have answered our

The yawl grounding repeatedly, occasioned so much delay, that after
proceeding seven miles I pushed on with the gig alone. Our course was
still South by East and the reaches were less crooked. Four miles further
we were delighted to find our progress rendered hazardous by sunken
trees, so much so indeed, that I was most reluctantly obliged to wait a
few hours for daylight. There could now no longer be a doubt that we were
in a river, and I immediately embraced the opportunity of gratifying my
earnest and heartfelt desire of paying the promised tribute to our
scientific predecessor; and accordingly named this, our first discovery,
after him, The Flinders.

As soon as the blackened heads of the fallen trees, evidences of how
fierce a torrent had borne them hither, could be discerned, we proceeded.
The reaches became again tortuous, but we still made some progress. The
mangroves were no longer to be seen fringing the banks with their garden
shrubbery appearance. In a broad easterly reach, some natives were
burning the country close to the west bank, but they did not show
themselves. At the end of it the river expanded into a beautiful sheet of
water a quarter of a mile in width, though only three feet deep.


Some low grassy islets were scattered here and there, reposing in emerald
verdure on the surface of the stream, which was reverting under the
influence of the tide, towards its source, and now hurried the boat so
rapidly through a narrow channel between the west side of a large island
and a low line of earthy cliffs, as to carry her foul of a submerged tree
and half fill and almost capsize her. In order to ascertain the extent of
the damage, we landed on a small sandy beach, in which was the fresh
print of a native's foot; but we neither heard nor saw him or his
companions, although columns of smoke from their fires stole upwards
through the calm still air on all sides. A fine sheet of water now lay
before us, trending southwards for upwards of two miles, with a width of
about a quarter; and it was with increasing interest and anxiety that we
pulled up it.


Passing a line of cliffs, twenty feet high, the banks became green and
grassy, descending with an almost imperceptible slope into the stream,
and blending with their vivid reflections so as to render it difficult to
determine where was the point of contact. It seemed as if we were gliding
through an indefinite expanse of limpid water reposing between two vast
plains, that here rose higher than we had before seen the land on this
part of the continent.

Hurrying on with a still favourable tide, but at a rate much too slow for
our impatience, we passed two other small grassy islets, and a third was
before us. The eastern bank had become steep, overhanging, and clothed
with a mass of luxuriant creepers; whilst on the opposite side was a low
woody patch, partly immersed by the lake-like glassy water of the river,
into which one slender tree dipped its feathery crest, appearing like
another Narcissus, to admire its own beauty in the stream. In front, the
eye could penetrate far down the reach hemmed in as it was by trees that
clustered thick on the water's brink.


To the right was what might be called an open glade; in the midst of it
rose a tree the branches of which were laden with a most singular looking
bundle or roll of pieces of wood. Struck with its appearance, we rested
on our oars to observe it;* but scarcely had we done so, when from a
point higher up, that appeared to divide the river into two branches,
rose a thick volume of smoke that soon filled the air, as if a huge black
cloud had lighted on the earth in that direction. We endeavoured to
proceed in order to satisfy our curiosity, but a rocky ledge extending
across the river arrested our further progress at this time of the tide.
Landing, accordingly, I advanced for nearer inspection, towards the huge
bundle of sticks before mentioned. It seemed almost like the nest of some
new bird, and greatly excited my curiosity. As I approached a most
unpleasant smell assailed me; and on climbing up to examine it narrowly,
I found that it contained the decaying body of a native.

(*Footnote. See the view annexed. )

Within the outer covering of sticks was one of net, with an inner one of
the bark of the papyrus tree enveloping the corpse. According to the
singular practice of uncivilized people, of providing for the wants of
those who have nothing more to do with earthly things, some weapons were
deposited with the deceased in this novel kind of mortuary habitation;
and a little beyond was a rill of water.

There was an air of loneliness in the spot, perfectly in keeping with the
feelings this strange discovery naturally called forth; and from the few
recent signs of the natives, it would appear that here, as in other parts
of the continent, spots where the dead lie are kept sacred. Some dark
brown and black hawks were perched on the trees near, looking like so
many mutes stationed to show respect to the departed; but their
intentions were of a different character, as they were waiting, I
imagine, for some friendly gust of wind to shake off the covering of the


While we were making these observations, the conflagration on the point
above continued to rage with great fury; and I have no doubt that it was
kindled in order to attract our attention and prevent us from visiting
this sacred spot. Though we saw not the form of a living being, I am
persuaded that the eyes of the natives were upon us, and that our every
movement was watched. The method they adopted to lure us away from the
neighbourhood of the dead was simple and ingenious, and might have proved
successful had not the interposing ledge of rocks prevented our further
progress. To effect their purpose they must have burnt up a very large
space, as the smoke that arose obscured all that quarter of the heavens.
We observed also that the ground about the burial tree had been submitted
to the flames, as if to keep away the few kangaroos that visit this spot.

This singular mode of disposing of the dead among the aborigines of
Australia, extends to the banks of the Murray River, on the south coast,
as we learn from Mr. Eyre's vivid narrative; and as we know that it
exists in New Guinea, we may fairly infer that so far we can trace the
migration of the population of the fifth division of the globe.*

(*Footnote. It is a curious circumstance to observe that the same custom
prevailed among the ancient Scythians, as we learn from Mr. St. John's
History of the Manners and Customs of the Ancient Greeks volume 3 page


I have always considered that Eastern and Western Australia were
originally separated by the sea; and that when they were thus separated
(which the narrow space, and as I conjecture, lowness of the country
between the Gulf of Carpentaria and Lake Torrens fully bears out) the
habits of what is now the northern side of the continent found their way
to the southern. It is true I have in another place conjectured, that in
cases where similar habits are found to prevail at widely distant points,
they may be looked upon as relics of a former universal state of things,
now preserved only in particular localities; yet without invalidating
this general rule, I think that the facts of the mode of burial I have
described, and likewise the rite of circumcision, existing in the bottom
of the Gulf of Carpentaria, and on the south side of the continent,
strongly support the opinion that there once existed water communication
between them.

However this may be, the discovery we had made highly interested the
whole party, and suggested the name of Burial Reach for that part of the
river. Knowing, or at least feeling, that we were narrowly watched by
those into whose territories we had penetrated, I did not venture far
inland. In the few miles traversed there was little of interest, except
that we felt the pleasure which almost surpasses that created by beauty
of scenery, of traversing a country totally new to the European. It is
astonishing how charming mere plains covered with clumps of trees appear
under such circumstances. But this feeling can be enjoyed but once; for
it is the explorer alone who can either experience or deserve it.

This part of the country, though to all appearance equally level with any
other, was higher, and may perhaps have attained to the elevation of
thirty-five feet above the level of the sea. Over the plains were
scattered flocks of beautiful rose-coloured cockatoos, several of which I
shot; they were precisely the same as those on the southern parts of the

Beyond Burial Reach the river separates into two branches, one taking an
easterly and the other a southerly direction; but neither of them,
unfortunately, was it at that time in my power to explore. Here we again,
for the second time only, met with a rocky formation: it was of a red
ferruginous character. Our furthest position on the Flinders was in
latitude 17 degrees 51 minutes South in a general South by East 1/2 East
direction from the entrance, nearly thirty miles by the distance the
boats had traversed.


After noon observations, the gig moved down the river. On passing the
large island, I shot an animal resembling a water-rat, of large
dimensions, particularly expanded across the loins, with stout hind legs
and palmated feet, of a light slate colour and soft fine hair approaching
fur, the colour gradually becoming lighter under the abdomen; the head
was flatter than that of the usual tribe of water-rats, and resembled an

(*Footnote. There is a species of water-rat inhabiting the coast of
Australia, called Hydromys chrysogaster; but this was the first time we
met with anything like it.)


It was not until long after dark that we reached the mouth, where,
meeting the yawl, both boats ran out of the river on their return to the
ship, distant thirty-three miles. The prevalence of light winds made it
noon before we got on board, when I found that in consequence of the
tides approaching the springs and falling 12 instead of 6 feet, it had
been necessary to move the ship farther off.

During our absence light winds had prevailed; on several days land and
seabreezes. The cessation of strong southerly winds kept the temperature
about 60 degrees. Mr. Fitzmaurice had returned and gave the following
account of his examination.


Commencing at Mr. Forsyth's furthest, he found the southerly trend of the
coast change in the course of nine miles to the eastward, forming a large
shoal bay, which at low-water had a mud flat extending off nearly two
miles. The east point of this bay, named Point Tarrant,* I had seen from
the south-east end of Sweers Island, bearing South 17 degrees West
eighteen miles. It is rendered remarkable by a slight rise in the land
behind it, forming low mounds or hillocks. Two miles to the westward Mr.
Fitzmaurice discovered an inlet, which he followed a league in a general
south-west direction, when it had in no way lost the promising appearance
it possessed from its breadth at the mouth, which was further increased
by the manner in which the bank was thrown out off it.

(*Footnote. After one of the officers who had shared all the hard work, a
practice generally adopted.)

Nine miles further westward were two other small openings. Mr.
Fitzmaurice's exploration terminated seventeen miles South 56 degrees
East from Point Tarrrant, where another inlet was found of still greater
magnitude and importance. The coast between fell back slightly, forming
two shallow bights with the usual low monotonous mangrove shores, and
extensive frontage of mud. At the distance of six and ten miles from
Point Tarrant were two other inlets, the latter of which was large and
received Mr. Pasco's name. It was examined for a short distance in a
South by West direction, and presented the usual low banks lined with
mangroves. Near the entrance a native came down to the shore to look at
the boat; he was very tall and quite naked, and would not allow our party
to approach.


Boat expedition.
Explore an opening.
Discovery of the Albert.
Picturesque Scenery.
Hope Reach.
Birds and Fishes.
Upper Branch.
Beauty of the Landscape.
Land excursion.
The Plains of Promise.
Halt the party and proceed alone.
Description of the country.
Return down the Albert.
Mouth of River.
Arrive at Van Diemen's Inlet.
Find Mr. Fitzmaurice severely wounded.
General result of the survey of the Gulf.
Winds and Temperature.
Booby Island.
Endeavour Strait.
Reach Port Essington.


Mr. Fitzmaurice reported so favourably of the last opening he discovered,
bearing West by South fifteen miles from the ship, that I determined on
making up a party to explore it, while another expedition, consisting of
the yawl and whaleboat, was to examine the coast to the eastward from
Flinders River to Van Diemen's Inlet. My party, including Lieutenant Gore
and Messrs. Forsyth and Dring, left the ship with the gig and the other
whaleboat on the evening of the day we returned from the Flinders.

The prospect that lay before us raised our spirits to the highest; and
the weather, clear, cool, and bracing, could not have been more
favourable, the temperature being 60 degrees. The ripples rolled rapidly,
expanding from the boat's bows over the glassy smooth surface of the
water, whilst the men stretched out as if unconscious of the exertion of
pulling, every one of them feeling his share of the excitement. From the
western sky the last lingering rays of the sun shot athwart the wave,
turning it, as it were, by the alchemy of light into a flood of gold.
Overhead, the cope of heaven was gradually growing soberer in hue from
the withdrawal of those influences which lately had warmed and brightened
it; but in the west a brilliant halo encircled the declining ruler of the
day. In these latitudes the sunset is as brief as it is beautiful. Night
rapidly came on, and presently the masts of the ship could no longer be
discerned, and we were pursuing our way in darkness towards the mouth of
the opening.

After vainly endeavouring to get over the bank extending off the mouth of
the opening, in the dark, we anchored the boats outside. The awnings were
spread, and the kettle for our evening's meal was soon hissing over a
blazing fire. Of all things tea is the most refreshing after a day of
fatigue; there is nothing that so soon renovates the strength, and cheers
the spirits; and on this occasion especially, we experienced a due
portion of its invigorating effects. Grog was afterwards served out,
pipes and cigars were lighted, the jest was uttered, the tale went round;
some fished, though with little success; and the officers busied
themselves with preparations for the morrow's work. But all things must
end; the stories at length flagged; the fishermen grew tired; and getting
into our blanket bags, with a hearty good night, we resigned ourselves,
with the exception of the look-out, to the arms of slumber.


July 30.

The morning broke with a strong breeze from South-South-East and although
the temperature was not below 52 degrees, we were all shivering with
cold. Soon after daylight we entered the opening, which for three miles
was almost straight, in a South by West direction, with a width of two
hundred yards, and a depth of from 2 1/2 to 5 fathoms. The banks were
fringed with mangroves, behind which stretched extensive mud flats, which
from being encrusted with salt and glistening in the sun were mistaken at
first for sheets of water.

The inlet now became slightly tortuous, pursuing a general South-West by
South direction; but the width being greater our hopes rose as we
proceeded. Eight miles from the mouth two islands were passed, and two
others four miles further on. The breadth at this point was nearly a
mile, but the depth was scarcely two fathoms; one less than we had before
found it. The above-mentioned islets, one of which was of some size, lay
at the upper end of a reach, trending south, where this inlet or river,
as we anxiously hoped it would prove to be, divided into two branches,
one continuing in a southerly direction, and the other turning short off
to the westward.


Though the latter had a greater volume of water passing through it than
the other, I still, from the direction and size of the south arm, decided
on ascending it first. For some distance the banks had been less fringed
with mangroves, leaving clear patches covered with coarse grass. The
trees on the side of the first reach in the southerly arm were laden with
the snowy plumage of a large flock of cockatoos. After proceeding about
five miles further we rested a few hours, continuing again soon after
midnight. As the tides run twelve hours each way, it was necessary that
we should take advantage of the favourable stream, whatever might be the
hour, though this plan kept the men for a very long time together at the

The general direction we pursued was still south, for six miles by the
windings of the stream, which was so reduced in breadth and volume, as to
be scarcely a hundred yards wide, and not a fathom deep. There was now
little hope that it would lead into fresh water, although, from the

Online LibraryJohn Lort StokesDiscoveries in Australia, Volume 2 Discoveries in Australia; with an Account of the Coasts and Rivers Explored and Surveyed During the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, in The Years 1837-38-39-40-41-42-43. By → online text (page 19 of 35)